While a majority of the City of Chicago is shut down today due to the frigid Arctic temperatures I’m thinking about ways to manage the winter blues. If you have Seasonal Affective Disorder (https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/seasonal-affective-disorder/index.shtml), or are just human, you are likely impacted by the continual gray skies, fewer daylight hours, and chilly temperatures. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that comes and goes with the seasons, typically starting in the late fall and early winter and going away during the spring and summer.” You may find yourself more tired, irritable, sleeping more, not spending time with friends and family, or not enjoying activities you used to. You may even feel hopeless or suicidal. If you are currently having thoughts of suicide or harming yourself please call 911 immediately or go to your nearest emergency room.
Although there are no definitive causes of Seasonal Affective Disorder, one reason for it may be how the shorter daylight hours increase the production of melatonin, which impacts sleep and energy. Humans don’t hibernate; we continue similar schedules through the winter even though our bodies are being told to go to sleep earlier. Vitamin D levels may be another possible cause of SAD since we get less sunlight in the winter and there are links between Vitamin D and serotonin, which plays a role in depression. If you live in Chicago, you likely have low levels of Vitamin D. I recommend having a blood test with your primary care doctor and continuing to have the levels tested after supplementing to make sure you are getting the right amount for your body. Light therapy, or a happy lamp, may also be helpful in reducing symptoms of depression in the winter. The light box imitates the sun and can help your brain to produce chemicals that improve your mood. I recommend talking with your primary care doctor or a psychiatrist about which light box would be best for you. They are available for purchase on Amazon, but there are several brands out there at different price points.
For me, in addition to missing the sunlight, winter is difficult because my body is impacted more greatly than in other seasons. When it’s cold I hunch my shoulders and armor myself against the cold, which means I’m tightening up and breathing more through my chest, and all of that contributes to stiffness and pain in my neck and shoulders. I highly recommend seeing a massage therapist on a regular basis during the winter to release tension that is built up from the cold. Massage therapy is also a great stress reducer. You could also benefit from practicing breath work. One simple technique is breathing in to the count of 4, 5, or 6 (whatever feels most comfortable), and then breathing out to the same count you breathed in and doing several rounds of that. Breath work is something I often teach clients I work with because there are many stress-reducing benefits.
Something else to consider is reducing your intake of alcohol. With fewer activities available and not wanting to deal with the cold it can be easy to end up drinking at your neighborhood bar more for something to do. I highly recommend taking a month off from drinking and noticing how that impacts your mood and body. I know it can be difficult socially, but think of it as a temporary experiment (because it is). One way to manage social situations is to have a plan of the alternative drink you will have if you will be hanging out with friends at a bar. If completing a sober month doesn’t interest you there are other ways to reduce the intake of alcohol like reducing the amount you have available in your house.
Finally, seeking support from a professional therapist and/or being evaluated by a psychiatrist for an anti-depressant may be what’s needed to reduce, manage, and overcome symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. Additionally, if you are struggling with quitting drinking please seek assistance from a therapist or alcohol treatment program. You don’t have to do it alone. Chicago winters are rough and long, but with a few changes you may be able to get through the winter feeling less irritable and tired, and more back to yourself enjoying the things you used to.